There are two facts buried in Ishy Din’s powerful, heroic and moving drama, Wipers, that shocked me out of my ignorance of the enormous part South Asian troops played in bolstering British forces during World War I.
I had no idea that a staggering 70,000 young men left their villages in India to fight for the British Raj. Worse, that in 1876, during a famine, India sent 320,000 tons of precious grain to feed Britain, causing nearly six million to die of starvation. It was profoundly humbling.
The Leicester Curve production of Wipers opened on Wednesday at Watford Palace Theatre and it is an absorbing story of courage and bravery under fire.
The four-man cast each give compelling performances but none more so than Jassa Ahluwalia who, despite being half Indian, is outstanding as a terrified English officer on his first day at the Front Line.
Ishy Din based his play on the true story of Khudadad Khan, the first South Asian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his extraordinary bravery. On the battlefields outside Ypres the 26-year-old, who is unseen in the play, single-handedly kept the Germans at bay by manning a machine gun post.
Wipers takes place in a barn (a seriously impressive set from Isla Shaw) where a young, quaking, officer, second lieutenant Thomas Dickerson Wright, finds temporary sanctuary along with two Punjabi soldiers. He is so scared that he throws up. His hands are shaking and he is initially incapable of issuing orders. His fear is palpable.
He and his men receive orders from a third Indian soldier, Ayub, that they must survive the night but, if the machine-gunner falls silent, then they must move out.
The distant sound of shells, the rat-tat-tat of the gun, fade into the night as the group of four try to find some sort of common bond. With Ayub (Waleed Akhtar) Thomas discovers a mutual hatred of cricket and a liking for English buses. AD (Sartaj Garewal) gives the officer his first taste of Indian food by cooking a dhal on stage, the subtle spices emitting a mouth-watering aroma around the Watford Palace auditorium.
But Sadiq is another kettle of fish. He is resentful, angry, and quietly rebellious. While outwardly the perfect soldier he has nothing for contempt at having to fight for another country’s cause in return for a plot of land and a future for himself in his own country.
The banter between the three Sikh soldiers is heated and unnecessarily so. They all admire the heroism of their countryman, Khan, but show little unity among themselves.
Wipers, which highlights an old war from a new angle, doesn’t have the emotional depth of Journey’s End but it is, nonetheless, an engrossing production that is a testament to the valour of South Asian men in the conflict.
Ishy Din’s dialogue is confrontational, heated, probing. The young officer is aghast at hearing a few home truths about Britain’s rule in India.
“We gave you our values, the railway, our technology…” splutters an uncomprehending Thomas in a perfect cut-glass English accent.
Simon Rivers gives a fiery turn as the hostile, but obeying, Sadiq, who finds it difficult to bond with his brothers while Garewal is understated as farmer turned soldier AD.
Wipers plays at Watford Palace Theatre unti May 7 and Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, May 12-21.
Ishy Din’s Wipers is a powerful and absorbing WWI drama about the heroism and bravery of a nation’s men who supported Britain on the Front Line.